Van Zyl banking on experience
National 400 metres hurdles record holder LJ van Zyl has learned that self-confidence is not a guarantee for success in major competitions, and he will need to bank on his experience heading into the London Olympic Games next month.
Van Zyl’s journey, since making his Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games, has been riddled with life’s hard lessons.
While self-confidence is believed to be key to success in competitive sport, Van Zyl has almost bucked the trend, performing at his best when his build-up has been poor, and vice versa.
His 2011 season is a case in point. The 26-year-old started last year’s campaign with a spontaneous South African record run at his home-track in Pretoria.
He improved Llewellyn Herbert’s 11-year-old South African mark in his first race of the season and went on to record the four fastest times in the world last year.
Despite the heaps of confidence he gained from those performances, he could not replicate his fine form at the Daegu World Championships.
Van Zyl had to be content with a bronze medal, with David Greene of Great Britain winning gold and Javier Culson of Puerto Rico taking silver.
“You have to go to the Games with confidence but I can name meetings like the 2007 World Championships in Osaka where I went in as number one and I had a lot of confidence and got knocked out in the first round,” Van Zyl said.
In contrast, Van Zyl struggled with his form ahead of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne but went on to beat favourite Alwyn Myburgh for the gold medal.
His 2012 season has been characterised by below-par performances, due to a niggling knee injury and illness, and he holds a pedestrian 49.42 seconds season’s best.
“I don’t necessarily need to have a great season’s best,” he said last week.
“If you look at last year I recorded the four fastest times and won the bronze medal.” Van Zyl said he would call on past experiences in an effort to ensure he was at his best at the Games.
“I’ve proven myself before and I believe in muscle memory, and those first three hurdles just need to click, then I’m away,” Van Zyl said.
As a 23-year-old, Van Zyl made his Olympic debut when he finished fifth in the final in Beijing.
He learned a valuable lesson in that race, missing out on a medal as he got swept away by the enormity of the moment.
“I won’t make the same mistake if I have the opportunity to run in the final again,” Van Zyl said.
“I tried to go out with Angelo Taylor over the first seven hurdles [in Beijing] and he really ran fast but it wasn’t my pace.
“I should have held back a bit and run the race the way I usually do.” The lesson was also evident in his four sub-48 second performances last year, and he knows now that he needs to concentrate on what he did best.
“If you look at my 47.6s, I ran my own race and started out fast and did my own thing by not chasing anyone,” he said.
“It is important not to get distracted by the Olympic hype and I will stay in my own cocoon.” While this year’s campaign has done little to instil confidence in his ability to earn a medal, Van Zyl has the pedigree and the ability to prove his critics wrong.
He has shown in the past that he shines when the odds are stacked against him and it would be foolish to disregard his dogged determination.
“I am sharpening up,” he said, “and I know that everything will fall into place.”